Airport Expansion Failed in the Past; Why Will This Time Be Any Different?
Lawmakers in Missouri are doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Government officials tried to expand Lambert–St. Louis International Airport not too long ago, and it didn’t work. They spent $1.1 billion in taxpayer money to build another runway at Lambert. It was the largest public works project in the history of Saint Louis, so I’m surprised that nobody is talking about it. The Riverfront Times gave the project the “Best Boondoggle” award twice — once in 2003, and again in 2004.
Here’s the back story: Evidently, government officials decided that two runways weren’t enough for Lambert. Construction on the runway began in 1998, and it continued despite several setbacks. (As the Riverfront Times aptly put it, “Still, the bulldozers rolled on.”) Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, Trans World Airlines went bankrupt and American Airlines bought it. In 2003, American Airlines cut its operations in half at Lambert, and revoked the airport’s hub status. In the meantime, people flew far less than projected.
Unfortunately for Missouri taxpayers, this story doesn’t have a happy ending. The new runway did not reduce delays. Plus, with each passing year, Lambert saw fewer takeoffs and landings. Just one year after the new runway was built, only 5 percent of flights used it. Several airlines asked to avoid using the new runway altogether. Because it was built so far away from the terminal, planes had to taxi as many as three miles to the terminal, burning more fuel.
Not only did the project fail to bring the traffic it promised, it tore apart the city of Bridgeton. Government officials used eminent domain to move seven major roads, kick 6,000 people out of their homes, and bulldoze six churches and four schools in order to make room for a third runway.
Government does not have a good track record in steering economic development — particularly in the Saint Louis area. Studies repeatedly show that they fail to produce the results that they promise. Most recently, the East-West Gateway Council of Governments concluded that the Saint Louis government has provided $5.8 billion in subsidies to private development in the city, but doesn’t have much to show for it.
Expanding the airport didn’t work then, and there’s no compelling reason to believe that it will work now. (Remember: No formal agreement has been signed, nor has any study been completed.) Lawmakers are in danger of repeating the same mistakes, so they should take a longer look at this.
We have a shared goal: an economy that is thriving and attractive to new businesses. Lawmakers are sticking the same old policies (tax credits!) — even though they have been shown to fail. If lawmakers in Missouri were serious about growing the economy, they would abandon the failed policies of the past and take a different strategy.